I need (even) more adrenaline

We just love this kind of people. We could listen to Dorota Szlachcic for a very long time as she talks about her work and passions in a truly compelling way. Dorota received numerous awards for various amazing projects. She used Scalamid as the material depicting floating elephants at the entrance to Orientarium in Łódź. Enjoy this inspiring interview with the co-owner of ArC2 Fabryka Projektowa studio.

Tomasz Czarnecki (Scalamid). An oceanarium in Angola – this phrase alone sounds amazing, and when you add that the project was made by a Polish company… Please tell us a bit about this project.

Dorota Szlachic (ArC2 Fabryka Projektowa and Szlachcic Architekci). – It’s not easy to build anything in Africa. We were invited to do the project by the Sopot-based company Navimor that built the Academy of Fishery and Marine Sciences in Namibe and knew the local reality of designing, contracting and building. The cost of labour is very high there, because for every unskilled worker you need one supervisor. So the technology project was to pack everything into containers and transport it by sea to Angola. Navimor decided to take another business opportunity and do something for the local community.

The oceanarium is being built in Namibe on the edge of the Namib Desert and this had a major influence on the project. We had to cope with sandstorms and temperature changes, because it’s not always warm there. In Europe, facilities like this exist to show people endangered animal species that live in a completely different climate zone. In Angola, this type of fauna has been wiped out due to hunger and poverty, among other reasons, hence the idea to create a place where children can see endangered species in the scenery of the mangrove forest, the waters of the pelagic zone or the cliff coast.

Graphics of floating elephants

In Łódź you are finishing Orientarium using a material called Scalamid.

– We used it in the path leading to the entrance to this part of the zoo. On Scalamid we put black and white graphics of swimming elephants to give visitors a taste of what they will see inside. We were looking for a material that would be easy to apply the graphics to, easy to attach, and resistant to various temperature conditions. At the same time we wanted a material that would allow us to use lighting effects, so that we could actually see the reflection of animal movements. Plus the large format – I do not like to use small elements. That’s a lot of requirements (laughs). We considered using ceramics, glass, but we chose Scalamid. I did not know this material earlier. But the tests came out perfectly, like on a computer screen, so I was quickly convinced with the product. The final product is stunning, really great.

It is impossible to leave out the people aspect. It plays an important part in practically every project of this type. I cooperated with open-minded people, people who wanted to do something new and did not walk the beaten path. Together we found solutions. Working with Pozbruk, Scalamid, Artrys was definitely creative and inspiring.

Elephants at the entrance to Orientarium in Łódź. Photo: Zoo Łódź.

Let’s change the climate zone – I will ask You about the project in Nepal.

– Unfortunately, we have not completed it yet. The Nepalese intended to organise a safe Great Himalaya Trail trek for hikers like us who had taken a break from the computer and wanted a safe overnight stay at 6000–7000 metres above sea level. They organized an international competition for architects to design such a facility. We came up with an idea of building mountain shelters using all the properties of a technologically sophisticated sleeping bag, taking into account the extreme environmental conditions, using perovskite solar films to store solar energy. Our project won the award, the Nepalese organised an international expedition to the mountain shelter sites and began preparations to start the investment. What’s left of that is my professional trekking boots (laughs). Unfortunately, in 2015, the country was hit by an earthquake near Mount Everest and this thwarted the plans of the Samarth organization. Nevertheless, I still believe that we will bring the idea to life.

Struggle with architecture

Is architecture in your life a coincidence or a deliberate choice?

– I can present it as a mathematical operation: drawing + mathematics = architecture. It’s the sum of my childhood interests. Since about 2008 I have been continuously doing biological projects which are a very important part of my work, my passion. What’s interesting is that I’m finding new passions thanks of it. For example, during the construction of Afrykarium in Wrocław, the heat was unbearable. So the colleagues brought their wetsuits and started diving. I gave it a try and after just a moment I knew that this was it! I am currently totally hooked on diving. I invested in equipment and I am pursuing advanced certifications. Not for the licenses themselves, of course, but to further improve the technique and reach the next level. The story goes on. When I was designing Orientarium in Łódź, just like other places of this kind, I already knew very well the magic of the underwater world. The big blue pulls you in.

You mentioned diving. Is that your only other passion apart from architecture?

– I get a lot of adrenaline at work, so after work I need to get… even more. I fly in a wind tunnel, which is a kind of introduction to skydiving. It all started when I was designing a skydiving simulator and decided to try it myself. I used to run half marathons, but now I don’t do that anymore, because… I dive. However, I run every morning to free my mind. I just focus on myself and on nature, which we all miss so much – luckily there is a park opposite my home and there is nature there. I also play tennis and even take part in tournaments. Of course, architecture takes up most of my time, it’s a typical time consumer. The time for everything else I have to tear away from it. That’s why I need strong enough stimuli to succeed (laughs).

Competition in the zoo

I reckon you like your job.

– Very much so. Architecture is a field in which you have to look at many projects almost simultaneously. Our reward is the fact that we can touch what we create. We can watch people enjoy the spaces we designed. You cannot compare this feeling to anything else. What I value most is working with a good team. It is great to work together on a difficult task. I like working in large groups of people, where everyone specialises in a different field and has a different background. Then we are a sort of Dream Team…

How did you come across biology?

– It was a coincidence, a flash of genius. We took part in an international architectural competition to design an aquarium called “The Life-Giving Waters of Africa”. The Wrocław Zoo wrote the tale of how one should visit Africa and we only “illustrated” it with architecture. With no previous experience in biotope architecture, we trusted our feelings and created the winning design that was poetic. And after the first oceanarium was built it was easier, because in many tenders the condition was that the architects were required to do at least one oceanarium, a condition that in Poland only I met.

Animal-related projects are fascinating and at the same time very difficult, because you have to take into account a lot of aspects that are not relevant for residential housing. For example, the issue of safety, both of animals and of people. The support of biologists, people who really know animals, plays an extremely important role here. They know the “capabilities” of elephants, and that they destroy everything that gets in their way. They suggest what are safe distances for people to walk from the orangutans’ aviary to avoid attacks, but also to make the animals feel comfortable, stress-free. This kind of information and proposed solutions are simply invaluable. We must also keep in mind that in biological buildings there is a much higher temperature and humidity than in flats or offices. All these data have to be processed, analysed, it’s pure construction physics.

Safari Park for tigers

In the case of oceanarium, there is also the issue of water.

–  It should be clean, while at the same time it should fulfil all the requirements for marine animals to have conditions that are at least close to those existing in the wild. A water purification plant has been set up under the aquarium in Łódź. There can’t be any empty spaces in an artificial rock, because pathogenic bacteria could develop there, so the rock must be filled with concrete. In such buildings the materials are completely different than in standard buildings, we use acrylic for underwater tunnels and viewing points. This material is very resistant to compression and to tension and can be weighed down with a water column of several metres. Instead of glass, we incorporate ETFE foil cushions to allow the sun’s rays to penetrate the jungles, waters and sandy pens. Each biotope must undergo a rigorous assessment by specialists in the various species before the animals are allowed in.  

Next challenge?

Safari Park for tigers in Siberia near Vladivostok. I’m really looking forward to it and… working on the next one. Together with a group of biotope architecture specialists, we are creating a professional hub on social media where we will share our experiences in this narrow field.

You can also watch and listen to the conversation with Dorota Szlachcic.

Dorota Szlachcic. Head of Design Team, Chief Designer, Co-owner ArC2 Fabryka Projektowa. Professional of the year 2014 according to Forbes (1st place in the category of architects), winner of the honorary award of the SARP Wrocław prize. Together with her team, she designed the oceanarium at the Wrocław Zoo, the Oceanario de Namibe in Angola, the Himalayan Mountain Hut in Nepal and the Orientarium in Łódź, to name just a few. She received numerous awards for residential projects. Graduate of the Faculty of Architecture of Wrocław University of Technology.

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